Pascal Siakam and The Redemption of the Algorithm

Who is Pascal Siakam? That depends on your feed.

11 mins read

The first step in Pascal Siakam’s redemption began with a reflection on how he let his team down. His statements acknowledged how he had played and that he essentially was the main factor in losing the series. We can talk about overplaying Marc Gasol or underplaying Matt Thomas, but ultimately our star player was offensively absent. Boston’s weren’t and their role players overperformed. So any margin of error that the Raptors had evaporated fast, and it is a testament to the team that they were able to keep it as close as they did. In the series preview I mentioned that the key to winning the series was Siakam outplaying his matchup. I was wrong. He only needed to play even or even below that. It’s why I’m not a gambling man. Also, hell. Direct to hell. Black and white.

For a critic that believes he’s a true optimist, it’s impossible not to cast Siakam’s performance against previous ‘main guys’ who never became main guys. The franchise invested heavily in Chris Bosh for years without success because he failed to materialize into a number one option that one could build a contender around. They tried the same experiment with DeMar DeRozan and hit a wall, with Masai Ujiri eventually grasping the opportunity to flip what is a number three option into Kawhi Leonard. I’m not going to comment on the Andrea Bargnani years.

It is perfectly reasonable for Raptors fans to fret when they see Siakam’s performance because there is historical precedent on the Raptors investing in guys that never made it to their advertised potential. It’s perfect rational.  However, some of the things I’ve seen out there go beyond banter and can be easily qualified as hate and have nothing to do with basketball.  I’m not going to elevate that with a link here but it’s quite brutal and makes me question at a deeper level why I’m even online and allowed the opportunity to elevate it.

Fans have a tendency to overreact (the word is literally a short form of fanatic) and we should be comfortable with a little hysteria in times like these and even enjoy it. There is beauty in despair and despair is exactly what losing Game 7 to the Celtics brings. So it is double disappointing to me that in a crucial stage of grief I was interrupted by something that had nothing to do with basketball. That is no way to grieve and gives way to more grief. Has anyone been able to get a decent night’s sleep since?

Let’s get back on track.

Pascal Siakam may very well turn out to be LaMarcus Aldridge-level player (7 all-stars, 2 second teams, 3 third teams) but our hopes right now are more that he’s on a Giannis Antetokounmpo trajectory. Whether it’s reasonable or not, that’s the implicit position that many fans have subconsciously adopted. Blame it on the feed. Or at least mine. Or what I think is mine but in reality is someone anticipating what I see, think and feel because they know what I see, think and feel. Not completely, but enough. It’s totally their fault that they’ve planted this thought in my mind that Siakam should be on the same trajectory as Giannis. Whoever’s fault it is, it’s there.

That’s why performances like these jolt a system. At 26 he still has time to figure things out and if his improvement rate is any indicator of future improvements (or even close to it), things are looking bright. It is also perfectly reasonable to fear that his rate of improvement might plateau. It depends on where you think he is on the S-Curve, a phenomenon that apparently has been observed everywhere from the life sciences to management, and may apply here.

It is both alarming and delightful that we are able to boil down the complexities of humanity into a single point on a single model that looks like the letter S. But that’s how models are. Whoever came up with the saying all models are wrong, but some are useful managed to exonerate every single model ever made. It’s quite a liberating statement. By acknowledging a seemingly catastrophic fault we at the same time welcome it. If we go down this rabbit hole I believe we can squarely pin the pending destruction of our world on that guy.

I have full belief in Siakam’s ability to dedicate himself to improving. That’s where I had doubts about some of his Raptors “predecessors”. I hope he tightens up his handles, cleans up the three-point shooting and develops offensive moves that keep defenders guessing instead of anticipating exactly what’s coming. After all, we do want to face Boston ASAP and reverse this reverse.

There were three aspects of Siakam’s playoffs which surprised me. First, Boston did not need to send double teams to control Siakam and were able to shut him down through single coverage through almost everyone on their team. It’s not like they had one supreme defender dedicated to shutting our main guy down like Paul George, LeBron James or, going way back, (ahem) Aaron McKie had in the past. Siakam couldn’t exploit anyone in single coverage – forget about Jalen Brown, Jayson Tatum or Marcus Smart, even Daniel Theis and Semi Ojeleye had his number. This was not an isolated case of a bad matchup for Siakam; even when he was matched up against “weaker” defenders he failed to do much.

People are irked by this comparison but the causes of why he wasn’t able to muster up anything are similar to DeMar DeRozan’s: suspect ball-handling, lack of outside shooting and poor shot selection.

Second, his offense was foreseeable. His spin move has been priced into the market for a while and it was painful to see him try to execute predictable moves, and that too slowly. If we can see it on the TV coming, Boston definitely can too. We knew he hadn’t yet developed an offensive repertoire but it was still disquieting to see how bare that closet is. The premise that his length, athleticism and quickness give him an offensive advantage is flawed. This league has plenty of guys his size and wingspan on deck to defend him, so to see him rely on those attributes so heavily instead of skill was a letdown.

Third, his settling for jumpers (sometimes early in the clock) showed an incomprehension of how the game was poised. In a series that was decided by a possession, the many instances where he chose to take a low percentage shot instead of passing it up bugged me. There is a subtle nuance between reading the defense and taking what’s on offer by adapting, and doing what the defense wants you to do. He did the latter consistently. This may have been Nick Nurse trying to get him going and if that is the case it was certainly an ineffective strategy.

On the positive side he was impactful on defense throughout the series. There were cases where he misread situations but relative to his teammates he was fantastic.  As great as his defense was it doesn’t balance out the rest, especially when compared to those Giannis expectations that soulless algorithm has set.  Bottom line is that he cares immensely and it’s a matter of application.

He’s facing the same adversity that others in his position face at this stage in their career where you try to push through to take the next steps to greatness. For Chris Bosh it was New Jersey, for Kyle Lowry it was Brooklyn, for Vince Carter it was Philly (though Vince never had a meaningful playoff career). For Pascal Siakam it is Boston. His talent is there and so is the will, and for the rest I turn to one of the greats, Fyodor Dostoevsky:

“If you wish to glimpse inside a human soul and get to know a man, don’t bother analyzing his ways of being silent, of talking, of weeping, of seeing how much he is moved by noble ideas; you will get better results if you just watch him laugh. If he laughs well, he’s a good man.”

I ultimately would bet on him because he laughs well. But I’m not a gambling man.

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